For Parents

For Parents

A Point on Vocabulary Growth

For decades, research has shown that as children’s spoken vocabularies grow, so too does their rate of gesturing. Until now, there has been a lack of direct evidence that the increase in gesturing contributes to, or simply goes along with a growing verbal vocabulary. The act of gesturing itself seemed to aid in learning a set of math problems that they didn’t yet have the vocabulary to verbally explain. While the explanation behind this is yet to be determined, it appears that hand movements that relate with what a person is trying to learn prepares them to take in the information they’re trying to learn more readily. In a recently published paper in the Journal of Cognition and Development, Eve Sauer LeBarton, Susan Goldin-Meadow, and Stephen Raudenbush explored whether this increasing use of gestures could contribute to early word learning.

How can a child be taught to gesture more often?

In day-to-day activities, children can be encouraged to point towards common objects in their environment (i.e. an apple on their plate, a picture of a dog in a book). In the dialogue below, you’ll see how a caregiver encourages a child to gesture towards an object in their environment:

Caregiver: “Look at the dog” (caregiver points at the dog)

Caregiver: “Can you do this?” (caregiver asks child to point to the dog)

Child: child points to dog

Caregiver: “Great job! That’s a dog.” (caregiver points at the dog)

Notice that when the child points to the dog, the caregiver enthusiastically reacts by saying “great job!” This communicates to the child that using gestures is a good thing, therefore increasing the likelihood that the child will gesture again in the future.

Equally as important to the child’s gesturing are the words that the caregiver says while the child is gesturing. A child’s first words are often labels for objects (i.e. dog, apple, bird). When a child points at an object in their environment, the caregiver should label the object so the child can attach the word to the object.

How does the frequency of a child’s gesturing cause their vocabulary to increase?

A definitive explanation has yet to be determined, but the following begins to explain what might be causing this increase:

  1. When a child points towards an object, their attention is directed towards it. If the child’s caregiver labels the object while the child is pointing towards it, the child is more likely to learn the name of the object since their attention is focused on the object.
  2. When a child gestures more, their caregiver is likely to increase their gesturing in response. When a caregiver gestures more, they often talk more too, and in doing so increase the vocabulary that their child is exposed to.
  3. When a child gestures, it creates an opportunity for their caregiver to respond and interact with them. The more a child gestures, the more opportunities for interaction occur and the more words the child is exposed to.

In the study conducted by LeBarton and colleagues, children who were in their earliest stages of word learning were trained this way. These children spoke fewer than 50 words and did not yet combine words together (i.e. “mommy hat”). Through this study, two main conclusions were reached:

  1. The frequency of a child’s gesturing can be increased
  2. By increasing the frequency of a child’s gesturing, the child’s vocabulary increases

Why is this important?

It’s been shown that early vocabulary is a main predictor of school success. One of the predictors of children’s early vocabulary development is their early gesturing. This study shows that children can be taught to gesture more often and, therefore, their early vocabulary can be increased!

For children at risk for low vocabulary, this study suggests a possible intervention. The findings of this study suggest that by encouraging children to gesture, vocabulary delays can be prevented or lessened. For children who are not at risk for low vocabulary, this approach can also be used to help support their early word learning.



LeBarton, E. S., Goldin-Meadow, S., & Raudenbush, S. (2015). Experimentally induced   increases in early gesture lead to increases in spoken vocabulary. Journal of   Cognition and Development16(2), 199-220.